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First woman to achieve Grandmaster title in chess visits Brandeis

By Ryan Spencer

Section: News

February 3, 2017

Five-time Olympic gold medalist and the first woman in history to achieve the Grandmaster title in chess, Susan Polgar spoke about her experience as a woman in the male-dominated sport of chess and her life as the descendent of Holocaust survivors to a room of about 75 people on Wednesday, Feb. 1.

Throughout her career as a chess player, Polgar encountered many forms of harassment and prejudice due to being a woman, she said.

It wasn’t that people didn’t want her to win because she was a woman, it was more that most just thought it wasn’t possible, she explained.

Polgar’s grandparents spent time in Auschwitz and were among the few survivors of the Nazi concentration camp.

“I always remember that. I always tell myself every day how fortunate I am and I use it as motivation,” she told the audience, which was comprised mostly of Brandeis students and families with young children.

Her first encounter with the game of chess came at home when she was four years old, she said, describing the encounter as “coincidence.”

When explaining the game, which typically has pieces in the shapes of castles and knights on horseback, Polgar said that her father made it sound like a fairytale. Shortly thereafter she “fell in love with the beautiful combination of the game itself.”

As a child, she practiced four to eight hours a day. She won her first tournament at the age of 4 and a half, and recalled having to sit on pillows or phone books to reach across the table.

Her parents were very supportive of her newfound skill. “I was very fortunate that I had all of the support from my parents who believed that, in chess, there are no boundaries, it does not matter if you’re a girl or a boy,” she explained. “I got that self-confidence from my parents.”

Polgar encountered sexism very early on, at about age four, and realized quickly that chess was a male-dominated sport. Her father was made fun of for bringing his daughter to chess games with his friends. After a while, one of them agreed to play a game with her. Then she started to win some of the games, she said.

It wasn’t that most people didn’t want a woman to be good at chess, it was just that most thought it wasn’t possible. Polgar cited hearing phrases such as a “woman’s brain is smaller.” Sometimes the opponents she beat tried to minimize her win, claiming that she “got lucky.”

Polgar has studied many combinations and moves. Her secret is about objective assessment, and understanding that at each level there are strengths and weaknesses, she said. A lot of people don’t analyze themselves properly and don’t end up working on their weaknesses. Being a great player takes a lot of practice and determination, Polgar noted. It involves psychology, fitness, endurance, motivation and handling pressure.

Chess has grown more and more, according to Polgar. There are universities with chess programs, and about half a dozen with very serious chess programs that are comparable to football at other schools. Dozens of universities are offering scholarships for chess players, which can be motivation for younger players. There are more and more opportunities for teaching, coaching, organizing, commentating—just like other sports, Polgar said.

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